If you’re like me, you waited until the final days of tax season to file your returns. And if you’re like me, you’re thinking there ought to be ways to keep your finances organized throughout the year to avoid the mad scramble as April 15 approaches.
I researched several Web services that can help make tax season smoother next year. They don’t help you prepare and file returns; rather, they’re designed to help you track expenses, charitable contributions, investments, and other financial data.
I haven’t found a single service that will do everything I was looking for. But I was able to piece four services to do it all. I gravitated to cheaper or free services and those that work on multiple systems — Androids, iPhones, and personal computers. I also tried to recommend services that do multiple things, so you won’t have to keep track of too many accounts and passwords.
You’ll still need to keep your W-2, bank, and investment tax forms handy. Store them in a shoebox as you get them. The following services will help you organize the rest of your data:
Mint.comA good starting point is this free service from Intuit Inc., which also makes the TurboTax software for preparing returns. You’re free to use a competitor to file taxes, though, as there’s no syncing between the two. Mint does not make it easy to export data to any tax service, including Intuit’s own. But Mint will keep track of the information, which you’ll have to retype into the tax software.
After creating a Mint account, you simply need to add your financial accounts, such as credit card, mutual funds, and PayPal. Mint will automatically pull transactions from those accounts. Credit card transactions often will have a category already assigned, based on the merchant. You can change that or add tags such as ‘‘taxes’’ and ‘‘charity.’’ You can also manually add transactions paid in cash.
Your investment firms should provide you with 1099-DIV and 1099-B forms that summarize dividends earned and sales of any stocks and mutual funds. There may be some cases in which you’ll need more details on when and how much you bought stocks for. Unfortunately, many banks offer records going back only a few months. But once you add them to Mint, those transactions will stay in the system. So if you use Mint long enough, you’ll have all your key information right there.
Banks will also provide 1099-INT forms to summarize interest earned, which you must report as income. But those forms won’t be sent if you’ve earned less than $10 — not uncommon in these days of low interest rates. With Mint, simply type ‘‘interest’’ into the search box under transactions. You can choose to search specific accounts or all of them.
For me, the most time-consuming aspect of tax returns is gathering the records for deductions. Mint can help.
■ Medical and work expenses. Tag credit card and check payments as ‘‘medical’’ or ‘‘work’’ throughout the year. Add those you pay by cash. At tax time, you have the records right there. If you get money back from your insurer or employer, tag those payments. You can calculate the net spending when you prepare your returns. If you’re not sure whether a particular item is deductible, tag it anyway. You can figure it out come tax time.
■ State and local taxes. Tag these ‘‘taxes,’’ whether they are quarterly estimated payments or payments or refunds for this year’s return.
■ Interest payments on mortgage. You can search Mint for payments to your mortgage company. Or if there are multiple companies, tag payments as ‘‘mortgage’’ throughout the year.
■ Charitable contributions. Tag credit card and check payments as ‘‘charity’’ throughout the year. Add those you pay by cash. Keep in mind the IRS requires receipts from the nonprofit organization in some circumstances. Keep those records in a shoebox, or use one of the options below. You’ll need another app — described below — to track donations of goods.
■ Other. You may be eligible for other deductions. Tag them ‘‘miscellaneous’’ for now. Mint offers free apps so you can tag these items on the go. Even if you don’t itemize your deductions, doing all this might help you determine next year whether you’ll get more by itemizing than by claiming the standard deduction.
One thing Mint isn’t good at is tracking cash payments. You need to enter those manually. Expensify can supplement Mint if you often pay with cash. Like Mint, Expensify can grab data from your bank, credit card, and PayPal accounts. It doesn’t handle investments; you’ll need Mint for that.
Expensify goes beyond Mint by letting you submit cash transactions simply by photographing a receipt with a camera phone, uploading a scanned image from a computer, or e-mailing a receipt to a supplied address. Expensify will then automatically pull relevant data, such as the date, merchant, and amount. If the receipt matches a credit card transaction in the system, the two will be linked. That way, you can have the itemized receipt from the drugstore handy when you go through your deductions.
Expensify has tagging like Mint’s, so you can stay organized.
The service is free for the first 10 receipts automatically processed. After that, it’s 20 cents each. To avoid the fee, manually enter data. Free apps are available for Apple, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry devices.
If you have stacks of paper receipts, consider Shoeboxed. It doesn’t pull data from your financial accounts, but it lets you mail in receipts for scanning. The important data get pulled in the processing. But it can get expensive — starting at $99 a year for plans with mail-in options.
This app is good for tracking noncash donations to Goodwill. You list items one by one and say whether they are in ‘‘good,’’ ‘’better’’ or ‘‘best’’ condition. The app estimates fair market value and calculates a total.
You can also enter the address and other important details on the nonprofit organization receiving your donations. You may need that information for your tax returns. You can also attach an image of your donation receipt, though the Android version of the app won’t take the picture for you.
The $2.99 app is from the BMG accounting firm. Versions are available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices. Don’t expect much from the Android version. Many of the features beyond the basics didn’t work properly or caused the app to crash.
There’s no Web-based version. Intuit’s free ItsDeductible service works on the Web, but has no mobile app. Non-cash donations might be something you’ll want to record on the go — as you browse through the thrift shop to estimate the value of goods the app doesn’t have information on.
If you’re on the road a lot for work, consider MileBug to track mileage and expenses. The $2.99 app is available for the iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone devices. There’s no version for regular computers.
To use it, simply add the odometer readings at the start and end of your trip. Or you can have your phone track that using GPS as you drive, but be careful about draining your phone’s battery and data plan. Either way, MileBug calculates the costs, based on the IRS’ published rates. There’s room to add expenses for parking, tolls, lodging, and meals.
Expensify lets you do some of this, but MileBug is worth getting if you travel a lot. For some people, Mint will be enough. Expensify is better for tracking cash payments and paper receipts, iDonatedIt will help with non-cash donations, and MileBug is ideal for those on the road for work a lot.